I recently went to Augustow to see for myself the reality of the proposed bypass that has become so controversial and has involved the intervention of the European Court of Justice. It is a classic case of a dispute that has been whipped into something that it isn’t, and there is a lot of potential for a win/win solution. But for that to happen there will need to be an outbreak of common sense. And as the Augustow bypass has become so high-profile, it has become a testing ground for the credibility of EU environmental legislation, so the stakes are very high.
It’s easy to sympathise with Augustow’s residents. Standing next the road passing through the town, shaken by the trucks thundering past, it is clear that something has to be done. An estimated 4500 lorries per day take this road, which connects Poland to the Baltic states. Road safety provision is completely lacking, there are no pavements and, apart from one set of traffic lights, no crossings – not even for children to get from their school to the bus stop on the other side. Even if road safety infrastructure were improved, the sheer volume of traffic would still be unacceptable, especially in terms of noise.
But the proposed solution is to build a bypass – part of the Warsaw-to-Helsinki Via Baltica road – through the wetlands of the Rospuda valley, a site protected by both EU Natura2000 and Poland’s “Area of Silence” status. The area is known as “the green lungs of Poland”, and is a central part of the area’s attractiveness to tourists. Augustow draws income for its bars, restaurants and guest houses from tourists attracted to sailing on Rospuda lake, sunbathing on the banks or taking kayak trips into the valley. Walkers and cyclists can enjoy a newly renovated path – paid for by the EU! – along the banks of the lake. Will the area be as attractive with a major highway running through it?
There is likely to be a viable alternative. Most green groups accept that a bypass is needed, and are working with civil engineers to put forward sensible, environmentally audited suggestions for an alternative route which would, among other things, protect Augustow’s tourism industry. The engineers themselves are sceptical about the Rospuda route, as the wetland area is prone to fog and icy conditions (thus requiring regular de-icing), and they are doubtful whether they can ensure that no harmful substances will get into the eco-system’s water courses.
Yet local media and the town’s mayor have encouraged local residents to pit themselves against environmentalists. Posters around Augustow encourage residents to report anyone suspected of trying to disrupt construction of the bypass to a “rapid response unit” or the police. The “unit” appeared to be two security guards in a black van who gave the impression more of vigilantes than officials. Daytrippers are currently sharing the forest – much of which has trees marked for felling – with security guards, brought in to protect the site.
Given that there are many other cases like Augustow all over the EU, particularly in the new member states, the credibility of the EU’s environmental legislation is at stake over the outcome of this bypass. The EU needs to get tough, especially as Poland stands to receive almost €60 billion of regional support between now and 2013, much of it earmarked for transport. The Polish government still has to negotiate the programme with the Commission, so this is Brussels’ chance to stress that projects that do not satisfy environmental legislation will not receive funding.
But the Commission also has to tread carefully. Some commentators have suggested that Poland’s history of being squeezed between bigger nations over several centuries has created a “them versus us” climate that provides an emotional motive for fighting rules imposed from outside the country. This may be the same in other new member states. The Commission will therefore not want to use the big stick every time there is a problem like Augustow.
Maybe the answer lies in giving member states guidance on better application of environmental legislation and open and transparent decision-making in relation to major infrastructure projects. Somehow solutions have to be found which respect local needs and dignity without compromising the EU’s efforts to protect the environment.
This news story is taken from the September 2007 edition of T&E Bulletin.